CD/DVD Review: Various Artists – Woody Guthrie at 100! Live at the Kennedy Center (Legacy, 2013)
This celebration of Woody Guthrie’s one hundredth birthday is more like a family gathering than an all-star tribute. That’s because every one of these performers is an artistic descendent of Gurthrie’s music. It’s impossible to overstate Woody Guthrie’s impact on popular music, as his themes, songs, style and attitudes have transcended several generations of performers and fans; Guthrie remains a North Star by which folk-derived music is navigated. The song list includes many of Guthrie’s best-known and best-loved songs, along with archival lyrics posthumously set to music by Joel Rafael, Lucinda Williams, Jackson Browne and Tom Morello.
Staging this homage as a concert, rather than a collection of studio recordings pulled together over weeks and months, honors one of the basic tenets of Guthrie’s work: music as a shared, visceral experience. Guthrie’s songs were written for live performance, and every one of the night’s performers was fueled by both the material, the stages they’ve traversed throughout their careers, and each other. The breadth of Guthrie’s mastery is evident in material that ranges from endearing children’s songs to strident social commentary and searching introspection. The universality of his work is equally evident in the range of musical styles in which his songs are comfortably expressed, and the continuing currency of his topics.
The CD artfully edits the performances into a briskly-paced 77-minute program shorn of between-song banter; the DVD augments the program with a reading from Jeff Daniels and a short speech from Guthrie’s daughter, Nora. Both of the spoken pieces, and six of the musical selections are additions to the one-hour PBS broadcast cut. The DVD also adds several extras, including an audio track of Woody Guthrie discussing his early recordings and rare clips of him performing. This tribute concert capped a year-long celebration of Guthrie’s centennial that was filled with books, box sets and symposia, and provides a renewed opportunity to remember his empathetic genius.